Madeline Fox, 96, a book lover who with her husband owned and operated Joseph Fox Bookshop in Center City, died Friday, May 15, of dementia at her Philadelphia home.

Joseph Fox started the business in 1951 in the basement of 1724 Sansom St. A year later, his wife joined him. The shop carried books on architecture and design, art, literary fiction and nonfiction, music, and poetry, said their son Michael. There was also a section of children’s books carefully curated by Mrs. Fox.

“Under my parents, the bookstore became a cultural institution and part of the cultural fabric of Philadelphia,” Michael Fox said.

His mother held the fabric together by connecting customers with similar interests and offering them an informal meeting spot.

Public figures such as the architect Louis Kahn frequented the shop. “People would gather around and talk with him,” Michael Fox said. “He would hold court.”

Mrs. Fox built strong friendships with customers and nurtured the relationships for decades. She was a popular figure in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.

“Pretty much anybody intellectual and cultural in Philadelphia who had any love of literature found their way to that bookstore,” said Alan H. Casper, a Philadelphia lawyer who became a regular customer starting in 1970. “It was a place where you could talk books.”

Avi Loren Fox, Mrs. Fox’s granddaughter, spent many happy hours there as a girl.

“I remember descending the narrow staircase into the basement storefront,” she wrote. “I remember the bells would ring when I threw the door open, revealing the warmth of yellow light and the smell of a thousand books.” She recalled taking butterscotch from a basket Mrs. Fox kept on the counter.

Joseph and Madeline Fox, with granddaughter Avi Loren Fox, in the family's bookstore in Center City.
Courtesy of the Fox Family
Joseph and Madeline Fox, with granddaughter Avi Loren Fox, in the family's bookstore in Center City.

After Joseph Fox died in 1998, Michael Fox stepped in to run the business. The shop moved to the first floor. Mrs. Fox gradually decreased her presence there and retired 10 years ago. Michael’s wife, Judi, joined him in operating the bookstore. The shop closed to all but online sales with the onset of the coronavirus. It’s expected to reopen when the pandemic ebbs.

Born in Mahanoy City, Pa., Mrs. Fox was the daughter of Ellis and Elizabeth Fried.

She was educated in the public schools and married Joseph Fox in 1940. They raised two sons in Southwest Philadelphia before moving to Center City in 1965. Though Mrs. Fox never traveled and spent most of her life within a few square blocks, she was so well-read that it seemed as if she had been everywhere, her granddaughter said.

Her favorite pastimes were reading, playing the piano, enjoying art, and listening to classical music.

“Madeline’s intellectual curiosity was contagious,” Avi Loren Fox wrote. Through the bookstore, Mrs. Fox established a reputation as an engaging, respected touchstone for those who valued the intellectual life and sought to deepen their knowledge.

In addition to her son Michael, she is survived by another son, David; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. A brother and two sisters died earlier.

Services are private.

Memorial donations may be made to Play on Philly, a nonprofit that provides music education to schoolchildren.